The revelation on May 22 that the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, broke the rules the rest of the UK has been living by for months has sparked public outrage. While the government has asked people not to go out unless necessary, not to see family and not to visit second homes, Cummings drove more than 200 miles with his wife and child to stay on his parents’ property.
Cummings seemingly broke lockdown rules on multiple occasions. He went in to his place of work when a family member was sick and drove his wife and child from London to Durham and then subsequently drove to local tourist spot Barnard Castle. And yet Cummings continues to enjoy the support of the prime minister, who has said that these actions were consistent with exceptional circumstances.
This has provoked a significant response from the public. Anger and mistrust are nothing new in politics. There is, though, a much deeper fear in this case, namely that the government’s support of Cummings could undermine voluntary compliance with the lockdown restrictions.
The rules we have all been living with are backed up by the force of law, and for sufficiently serious breaches it is possible both for the police to issue fines and to prosecute. Yet such enforcement action could only ever be a last resort. Most of the compliance would always have to come from the voluntary actions of ordinary people. And if this compliance is undermined then it leaves the door open for the further spread of coronavirus, with all the consequences that entails.
Breaking the rules
In our research we found that the number of people willing to say they have broken the lockdown rules because they do not agree with aspects of the policy more than doubled during the week the Cummings story broke. This suggests the government’s backing of Cummings is indeed having a serious negative effect on our ability to enforce lockdown restrictions.
On May 19 we conducted a survey of approximately 1,000 people from across the UK – a few days before the Cummings story broke. This survey probed a range of attitudes and beliefs around coronavirus. We then reran the survey on May 27 with a further 200 people to see if the Cummings story had any discernible effect on responses.
In a sense, the results we find are fairly encouraging – over 60% of people think that they have followed the guidance on social distancing and had been staying at home. Those who broke the rules tended to say that they did so either because of a personal need, such as non-essential work commitments, or to help a family member. Relatively few people stated that they broke the guidance because they did not agree with aspects of the policy.
While this general pattern holds true across both surveys, there are still some stark differences, particularly among people breaking the rules because they do not agree with them. On May 20, 4.2% of respondents said that they had broken the rules because they disagreed with them. On May 27 this was up to 9% – a change which is both politically and statistically highly significant.
Why the change?
There are two basic explanations for our findings. It could be that people are now more willing to report past breaches of the lockdown – or that more people broke the lockdown restrictions during this particular week. Either way, the only plausible explanation for such a dramatic shift in reported behaviour over a few days is the Cummings story, given how much it dominated public discourse between our surveys.
Neither explanation is encouraging for the future. An increase in the number of people breaking the rules is obviously bad news. Crucially, an increase in people’s willingness to admit and defend breaking the lockdown is also bad news because it will undermine a collective sense that ordinary people ought to follow the rules.
We know that social norms around “doing the right thing” are very fragile. An increase in the proportion of people who are willing to say they broke the rules can lead, therefore, to an exaggerated effect on overall compliance.
There is a real danger now that the norms around compliance may collapse. This means it is vital to return as quickly as possible to simple messages that convincingly guide the public about coronavirus. The track and trace system, for instance, relies almost entirely on public cooperation. Our research showed that trust in scientific experts and the NHS was very high, and remained high after the Cummings story. If, therefore, the UK is to retain a norm of compliance and cooperation it would seem vital that experts and the NHS are at the forefront in communicating that message.